Dr. Ab Sadeghi-Nejad examined Masha Denemkova’s eyes recently at Tufts-New England Medical Center.

Doctors: Years later, Chernobyl exacts toll

By Scott Allen
Globe Staff / April 26, 2006

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Masha Denemkova, 13, believes the brain tumor that nearly left her blind was caused by a nuclear accident that happened long before she was even born. And why not? She is growing up about 75 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear reactors, in Gomel, Belarus, where health officials still detect elevated levels of radiation 20 years after the world's worst nuclear accident.

''I don't pick the mushrooms because of the radiation," explained the cheerful teenager, who was in Boston for medical care at Tufts-New England Medical Center's Floating Hospital for Children. Surgeons there removed the benign tumor, which was pressing on her optic nerve, last year.

But the Boston doctors who treat Denemkova and hundreds of other children in the three countries most irradiated by Chernobyl fear the world is rushing to close the books on the accident's youngest victims. A report last fall by the United Nations and the governments of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia concluded that long-term radiation exposure is ''unlikely to have any effect on . . . the overall health of children," estimating that 4,000 deaths of adults and children would finally be attributed to the accident.

Now, in a report to be released today, doctors from the Chernobyl Children Project argue that such optimism has no basis in facts.

Nearly all of the 1,200 young people they care for have elevated levels of radioactive cesium in their blood, and the rate of thyroid cancer for children in some parts of the region was 80 times higher than normal during the mid-1990s, though it has declined somewhat since then. Worst of all, they say, the radiation exposure will continue for decades.

''They are still consuming radionuclides from soil, from food, from rivers, from fish, and from mushrooms," said Dr. Alexandre Perepletchikov, who treated children in the region from 1992 until 1999 before coming to Tufts-New England Medical Center.

Perepletchikov acknowledges that he can't prove Masha's illness was caused by radiation, but he argues that's because there is so little monitoring of children in the Chernobyl region. The Chernobyl Children Project report is being released on the anniversary of the runaway nuclear reaction and fire at Chernobyl that showered high levels of radiation on nearly 17 million people in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, including 2.5 million children under the age of 5. Within a few years, doctors detected a dramatic increase in cancer of the thyroid. But most of the diseases suffered by children and adults in the Chernobyl region, from asthma to brain tumors, can be caused by many factors, and the combination of poor healthcare and chaos from the breakup of the Soviet Union made sickness more likely.

As a result, estimates of the final death toll from Chernobyl have ranged from the 4,000 by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other United Nations-backed agencies last fall to the 200,000 by scientists working with the environmental group Greenpeace.

But Dr. John W. Kulig, a Tufts pediatrician and medical director of the Chernobyl Children Project, said all of the estimates are based on needlessly poor information.

Kulig, who leaves for the Chernobyl region this Saturday to examine 100 children who will come to Boston in June for medical care, said better studies of children's health might be reassuring, proving that low-level radiation exposure is less dangerous than some fear. ''Our main emphasis is to really encourage some thorough research to find a definitive answer one way or another," he said.

Scott Allen can be reached at